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CEOs are in the spotlight. To succeed, they need to be real

Editor's Note: (James R. Bailey is a professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business and a Fellow in the Centre for Management Development, London Business School. Sarah Kellogg is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and columnist who follows business, politics, organizational behavior and urban culture. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.)

At this week's Milken Institute Global Conference, CEOs from five of the world's most respected companies discussed how to navigate a changing world filled with volatility and uncertainty.

The executives represented companies that are not the hothouse disruptors of the technology industry, but some of the world's largest corporate titans — EY, Goldman Sachs, General Mills, Siemens USA and Viacom. And that's what made these CEO's responses all the more interesting.

While young companies are born and raised to embrace disruption, how these more established corporations respond to change is a powerful tale of social and economic evolution.

What became abundantly clear is that today's top executives feel the need to be more responsive and authentic to investors, employees and the public than ever before. This is happening at a time when they are addressing any number of issues, whether it be privacy, climate change, income inequality, diversity or technological advances.

"What's different about the world today is that, in the past, you could have a different message for investors, people who cared about the environment or your employees," Jeffrey L. Harmening, chairman of the board and CEO of General Mills, told the conference. "Today, the message has to be clear and be the same, and it has to be delivered in a voice that is uniquely my own."

Follow our coverage of the Milken Institute's Global Conference here.

This picks up on the research by professor Robert Goffee and leadership consultant Gareth Jones, who wrote in the Harvard Business Review, that CEOs and leaders should: "Be yourselves—more—with skill."

The two researchers found that truly effective leaders are capable of exposing their own vulnerabilities and can empathize with their employees. By doing so, they're able to show a more human side that others can connect with. Effective leaders, the researchers found, are also able to trust their gut and aren't afraid to express things that make them truly unique.

This is where the chief executives on the Milken panel showed an impressive grasp of how their role has evolved. Most of the CEOs in the lineup said they spend a lot of time managing their organization's culture, often using traditional PR channels and social media to great effect. The executives also stressed that their companies and their leaders must be more authentic to gain a deeper trust from and understanding of their clients and employees.

David Solomon, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs (GS), is a great example of this. Solomon, who moonlights as a DJ, has quickly cultivated a presence on Instagram, using it to communicate directly with his employees and others. "It is a new way to evolve the communication," said Solomon, whose posts are a diverse mix of business (with pictures from a recent summit he attended in China) and pleasure (such as photos from a Fleetwood Mac concert).

Ubiquitous media coverage means CEOs are in the spotlight more than ever now, their personalities and their personal lives often in a bright glare. The spotlight is a powerful tool. Carefully deployed, it can convey the quality of character that reinforces confidence in constituents.

Barbara Humpton, CEO of Siemens USA (SIEGY), was the only panel member with a presence on Twitter, which she posts on almost daily. Her posts are innocuous, designed entirely to connect. She doesn't direct attention to herself in a noticeable, exaggerated manner. Still, she's aware she's in the spotlight, and she manages her public persona carefully — always with an eye toward promoting Siemens.

Although articulate and engaging, none of the CEOs on the Milken panel were particularly demonstrative. They were energetic without being frantic. That's refreshing given the recent trend of executives changing lanes into celebrity. The current volatile political and social climate has everyone a bit on edge. People are looking for stability. Reliable and assured management is a welcome tonic to grandiosity emanating through the media channels.

During the panel, Solomon made the point that successful leaders work hard, are "human," and remain visible to clients and employees. "CEOs don't sit up in an Ivory Tower," he said. "You have to be a little bit more available, a little bit more human."

That combination of authenticity and modesty goes a long way, especially as the workforce and the global economy continue to evolve.

The executives on the panel said they must learn to connect with Millennials, for example. These younger workers make up much of the workforce, and the executives said real-time interactions with this influential segment will continue to be a substantial factor in their company's success.

Contrary to popular opinion, research shows this demographic is hard working, enjoys challenges and craves collaboration. These CEOs are embracing this youth movement, finding ways to capitalize on it to everyone's advantage.

EY's Carmine Di Sibio, Global Chairman and CEO-elect, noted that the average age of his employees was 27.5 years, and their interests are factored into the development of many EY policies and approaches. The company recently announced it was giving the entire week of July 4th off to its US employees, a benefit Di Sibio expected to be widely popular with his youthful workforce.

Talkfests like the Milken conference are often impressive because they bring the top thinkers to the stage. Too often these leaders toil in corporate boardrooms, or whisper privately to each other, far away from the public's view. The old cloaks can't conceal that which they used to. This lot gets that.

These CEOs are aware of trends and unpredictable events in their industries and the general culture. They may not be progressive pioneers, but they know that the best way to respond to disruption, uncertainty and change is with intelligence, authenticity, clear communication and composure.

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